President Donald Trump has clarified the role of Religious Right favorite son Jerry Falwell Jr. in his administration: leading a task force on higher education.
More specifically, Falwell will lead the effort to deregulate a Department of Education that, under President Barack Obama, tried to rein in sketchy practices of for-profit colleges. Falwell’s goals sound like a perfect fit for Trump, who in November agreed to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits brought by students who claimed they were defrauded by his for-profit Trump University.
Falwell has said he was offered but declined the position of Trump’s Secretary of Education. That offer since has been extended to Betsy DeVos, who wants to privatize public education through school voucher schemes.
At least Falwell, as president of the fundamentalist Liberty University founded by his father, has experience in higher education – something DeVos is lacking. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted DeVos’ “seemingly nonexistent record on higher education” during a confirmation hearing last month.
Falwell himself said of his appointment, “The task force will be a big help to (DeVos). It will do some of the work for her.”
But having Falwell involved in developing public education policy is a concern for those who favor church-state separation and religious freedom. His university teaches creationism, its anti-LGBTQ stance prohibits “sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman,” and he used inflammatory language about Muslims when he encouraged his students to arm themselves: “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed.”
“I let (the Trump administration) know one of my passions is reforming higher education and education in general,” Falwell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch shortly after the election. “I told them I’d be willing … to serve in some capacity that sort of brings education back to some form of sanity.”
Deregulating colleges, teaching creationism, discriminating against LGBTQ people and menacing religious minorities don’t make for the type of sanity the Department of Education needs. And look out if he’s joined there by DeVos, who supports voucher plans that funnel taxpayer money to private schools that lack accountability. This is all part of her education “reform” efforts to “advance God’s kingdom.”
“Now, the future of American education may rest in the hands of two people who might actually be able to enact the kind of religious takeover that (Jerry Falwell Sr.) once dreamed about,” notes writer Kevin Roose on Fusion.net.
Jerry Falwell Jr. wants to deregulate the Department of Education.
Having Falwell Jr. involved in setting national education policy also is a concern since his university could benefit from any deregulation his task force recommends.
A New York Times analysis shows Liberty may be a non-profit university with a modest 14,000 residential students, but it also operates a profitable online arm that enrolls an additional 65,000 students. That puts Liberty’s online enrollment second only to for-profit behemoth University of Phoenix.
“Most colleges now have a mix of residential and online students, but it’s almost unheard-of to have four times as many online students as residential students,” The Times wrote of Liberty. “Because internet courses are cheap to deliver at scale, the online division is a big revenue driver for Liberty, which brought in $591 million in tuition in 2013, against $470 million in expenses. Liberty is essentially a medium-size nonprofit college that owns a huge for-profit college.”
The article highlights some unflattering statistics about the success rates of Liberty’s students:
- 41 percent earn less than $25,000 six years after entering college. That’s less than the average earnings of a 25-year-old with only a high school diploma.
- Three years after graduation, 9 percent of Liberty students default on their student loans, which is higher than the national average rate of 6.5 percent.
- Fewer than 40 percent of Liberty students have managed to pay down their student loan principals by at least $1 within three years of leaving school.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, which interviewed Falwell last week about his new post, noted one of his targeted areas for deregulation will be rules enacted last fall aimed to assist students left with worthless diplomas and mounting debt after their for-profit colleges collapsed. The Obama administration also strengthened the accrediting standards for colleges whose students receive federal financial aid.
“The goal is to pare it back and give colleges and their accrediting agencies more leeway in governing their affairs,” Falwell said. “I’ve got notebooks full of issues.”
Call me crazy, but I’d like a Department of Education that puts the best interests of students ahead of shady colleges that appear to be out to make a quick buck.
P.S. Speaking of DeVos, your activism is working: Her confirmation as secretary of education is in limbo and could come down to just a few votes in the Senate. Tell your senators to oppose DeVos.